Tag Archives: BCPSS

Cold temperatures

Draft of a letter:

Over the past two days, many schools have tried to continue educating students in the midst of very cold temperatures. Students in many rooms had to huddle together in winter coats, hats, and gloves indoors. Some teachers in colder classrooms combined their classes with teachers in (slightly) warmer classrooms, with class sizes thus rising to 50-60 in some places and multiple lessons being taught simultaneously in the same room. Is learning really occurring for the majority of students being taught in frigid rooms, or combined in a classroom with multiple other classes?

Some students’ parents kept them home because they didn’t want their children standing for long periods at a freezing bus stop, being put off the MTA bus to wait for the next one because of overcrowding, or trying to learn in classrooms that were unheated. Other parents pulled their children out of school when they found out the lack of heat, expressing outrage that the Baltimore City Public School System did not itself make the call to close schools, and gave misleading information when they claimed “School buildings were monitored for heat & water issues throughout the holiday breakin a January 1st tweet. Low attendance due to these valid decisions, made looking out for children’s safety and well-being, compounds a pervasive chronic absence problem in Baltimore schools and puts our kids even further behind their peers.

This issue is not new; it has been going on for years.

I call on our leaders in my district, my union, and my state to do the following:

  1. Advocate for more state and federal funding
  2. Adopt clear and transparent standards for when schools should be closed due to extreme heat, extreme cold, and other in-building health hazards
  3. Allow principals more autonomy and authority in making the ultimate decision to close an individual school building
  4. Adopt contingency plans to provide services (that would normally be provided in school) to families and communities in the event of a school closure
  5. Improve communications to alert families and communities of an unplanned school closure

I will address each of the above calls in more detail.

At the root of this problem is a severe underfunding problem. In the early 2000s, the Thornton Commission studied the state funding formula and found that, by the Maryland state constitution’s guarantee of an “thorough and efficient System of Free Public Schools”, the Maryland state legislature should be providing $260 million more to BCPSS each year. Even with court rulings, Thornton was never fully funded, so over the past twenty years, Baltimore students and schools have been shortchanged by over three billion dollars, and have not been able to keep up with building repairs and renovations because of this. To fix this problem, I call on our union leaders, our school district leaders, our city leaders, and our state leaders to demand more funding now, not only to bring us up to “adequate” yearly funding based on Thornton (and its successor, the Kirwan commission) now, but also to make up for decades of neglect and crumbling infrastructure.

Additional funding is the only way we can truly rectify the educational harm that is being done to our children. Additionally, as a more immediate way to make sure that our children are not learning in inhumane conditions, I call on our district leaders to adopt the following recommendations, and I call upon our elected union leaders to advocate for these with the district and with the school board.

To begin with, there is little transparency in why the decision is made to close some schools due to lack of heat or water problems, while other schools with equally bad or worse conditions are not closed. I ask that BCPSS set clear and unambiguous standards in writing that dictate when a school’s temperature problems are severe enough to warrant closure of that building. For example, clear wording like:

“If temperatures are below 55 degrees in 25% or more of classrooms, a school will be dismissed. If fewer than 25% of classrooms are below 55, we ask that principals work with teachers to combine classes and/or move learning to warmer parts of the building.”

Similar wording, of course, will be needed for circumstances of extreme heat in un-air-conditioned buildings.

Going hand in hand with this recommendation for a more transparent closure process, we recommend more principal autonomy and authority in making the call to close a school when a temperature or health hazard presents itself. Certainly communication with and consultation with the Facilities and Operations managers at BCPSS headquarters remains essential. But too often in the past, this has taken on an adversarial nature, with district personnel not believing a principal about conditions at their school, arguing that the health hazard is not real, taking hours to come out and measure, only measuring conditions in one or two locations and not where learning actually occurs. While consultation on the best course of action is important, more trust should be placed in principals who are on the ground at the schools to make the best decision for their school community.

Schools are primarily an educational institution, and as such, it is my belief that if weather or health conditions will severely impact the ability of the school to educate its students, school should not be in session. However, as BCPSS CEO Dr. Santelises pointed out in her letter, schools also provide a variety of other services to the community, one of the primary being free meals for students. I ask that BCPSS develop a plan districtwide, and work with schools to develop local community plans, for how some of these services can still be provided even when a school is forced to close due to unsafe or unconducive learning conditions. For example, some school districts allow for pickup of bagged lunches at a school with minimal staffing needs. Another possibility might be partnering with recreation centers, churches, community organizations, public libraries, or local businesses to help distribute food and/or other services.

If the above recommendations are adopted, with clear standards for when conditions at a school warrant closure, granting more authority to principals to make that call, and adopting a contingency plan for providing services, communication with parents and families will also need to be improved to deal with unforeseen closures of individual schools, at potentially later times, and to inform families of locations for other services. One possibility is enlisting teachers and parents in phone trees to help communicate more rapidly.


Nick Yates

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Year 12, Day 0

This week teachers headed into school to prepare for next week and students’ return. This will be my twelfth year!

My teaching this year will include more computer science than ever before:

  • AP Computer Science Principles (full year)
  • AP Computer Science A (full year)
  • Foundations of Computer Science  (spring)
  • Computer Integrated Manufacturing (fall)
  • Precalculus independent study (fall, three students, three separate periods)

I’ll also be working with our new engineering teacher and our librarian+new-computer-science-teacher to help them with their lessons, and collaborating with two geometry teachers around standards-based-grading.

Extracurricular activities and competitions:

  • Coding Club (app development, cybersecurity, & more)
  • Women’s Transportation Seminar’s “Transportation You!” Mentoring Program
  • TRAC bridge builder competition
  • CyberPatriot competition
  • STEM Competition
  • possible (in my mind, I want to do each of these this year): Cyber Movie Mondays, Saturday AP & PLTW study groups, Girls Who Code club
  • probably several others…

Ongoing projects that will occupy some of my time this year include:

  • Comp Hydro (teaching hydrology and flooding through computational simulations & modeling, in partnership with the Baltimore Ecosystem Study)
  • MyDesign (engineering design process app and learning management system, in partnership with NSF & the University of Maryland)
  • Internet of Things project to measure air quality and other environmental factors in schools (in partnership with Cool Green Schools, Johns Hopkins University, and Morgan State University)
  • Continuing work toward my Master’s Degree in Computer Science (taking “Artificial Intelligence ” course this semester)
  • Baltimore City Engineering Alliance, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) we created to provide opportunities to Baltimore City students to further their engineering education, and for which I am treasurer

School starts for students on Tuesday, after Labor Day for the first time in my twelve years here teaching in Baltimore. Wish us luck!

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Contract Results

The contract was ratified. Boo.

Unfortunately, it seems there was very low turnout. Only about 1000 teachers voted today, compared to the nearly 3000 who voted in November 2010, and out of a total union membership of approximately 6000.

Perhaps this was due to the sudden and rushed way this contract and the vote were sprung upon us only a week ago. Perhaps to a feeling of disenfranchisement of teachers who were not consulted in the writing of the contract which was negotiated behind closed doors. Or perhaps due to the hours of voting, 7:30am-5:30pm, at only six different sites, which is pretty much synchronous with the school day for many hardworking teachers.

Here’s what I wrote over 3 years ago at my last contract vote:

Voting today was supposed to go from 7am to 6pm. I got to my voting location this morning at 7:05 but went to the wrong side of the building/campus. At 7:15 I parked my car in the right place, got out, greeted a number of teachers from my school who were standing in line, and found out voting hadn’t yet begun; they were still setting up inside. This was outrageous, since they had had weeks to prepare and they knew that teachers had to get to their jobs and teach a full work day. No leave or early-release day had been given, and 7:30-6 are pretty much my usual working hours!

I heard similar stories of polls opening late this morning. I made it to a voting station today at about 5:00pm. I was the only voting teacher there (along with about 5-6 poll staff). Everything went smoothly for me this time. I just wish more teachers had voted: it might have made the difference in being able to re-negotiate a better contract instead of being stuck with this very flawed one.


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Resources for Tomorrow’s Contract Vote

This is a compendium of some resources concerning the new contract which is up for a vote tomorrow. I encourage Baltimore teachers to read/listen/watch through them as you weigh how you will vote. I encourage you to vote “NO”, but whatever your decision, get out and vote tomorrow Thursday February 6th at any one of these locations.




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My letter to the BTU President

Good evening Ms. English,

The main reason I write to you today is to encourage you to postpone this Thursday’s contract vote. With such short notice (only 6 days from contract announcement until vote), there has not been enough time for teachers to read, meet, discuss the contract.

In your email from earlier this evening you point out that we are working without a contract – if so, why were we not given the tentative agreement several months before the old one expired, so there was adequate time to digest it, make an informed vote, and even go back to the negotiations table if a no vote occurred, without having to threaten that we would lose our jobs or benefits that we have fought for?

One additional concern I have is with what you cite as a positive, that the new contract is very similar to the current contract. Many teachers raised concerns then that so much of the contract was still to be written, in that committees would be formed to establish AU criteria, the evaluation system was pending action by the state legislature, etc. We gave you our trust when we voted to approve that contract in November 2010, trusting that those committees would act in good faith to the promises that had been made about AUs even though the language was not nailed down in the contract, trusting that the evaluation system and its implementation would be as fair as possible within the constraints set by the state. This has not been true. Two categories of AUs are still “in development”, one was released 2/3 of the way into the contract and has been made almost impossible to apply for. While the fact that 50% of our evaluation is based on student growth is state-mandated, your statement “The evaluation tool is a result of state and federal mandates” conflates that with the details of how Baltimore City has chosen to connect that evaluation to pay, and how exactly student growth is measured (e.g. school performance index). These details of how Baltimore City can apply the student growth measure are very much in the purview of this contract, and I don’t feel comfortable voting for another contract where so much about AUs and evaluations are not adequately addressed in the contract in writing.

Nicholas Yates
Math and Engineering Teacher
Patterson High School #405


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BTU Contract 2014

The News: Baltimore (City) Teachers Union (BTU) has reached a tentative agreement with the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) on a new contract. This news was announced last Thursday 1/30/14, with information sessions scheduled for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and a vote scheduled for this Thursday, 2/6/14.

Our old “revolutionary” new three-year contract had run out last June, but an extension was signed so that contract negotiations could continue into this school year. According to the BTU reps sent out to our school yesterday, however, that extension expired on January 31, so we are now completely without a contract and are considered “at-will” employees.

Here is why I plan to vote “NO” this Thursday on the new contract:


  • Rushing to a vote. By releasing the new contract and rushing to a vote only a week after it is announced, it seems like they are trying to rush us into voting on this contract without having adequate time to read and discuss its implications.
  • Bribery. Just like last time, a stipend is offered as soon as we approve/ratify this contract. While I appreciate and can use the extra money, this stipend seems an underhanded way to convince us to vote for something we might otherwise find distasteful.
  • Closed negotiations. Teachers had no information on, nor direct input to, the negotiation session.
  • Scare tactics. When I raised a question in shock at yesterday’s meeting, that we were working without a contract, the BTU reps responded in a way that seemed meant to scare and intimidate us into voting for the contract, by highlighting that we are now (as of 2/1) at-will employees without a contract, and could be fired at any time for any reason. When another teacher asked what would happen if we voted down this contract, they came back to this. If this is true, why on earth did they not do their job and bring this to a vote long before our old contract ran out? Scare tactics like this make me less inclined to vote for the contract.

Substance: What’s in the Contract

  • COLA. We get a 1% raise each of the next three years. As a teacher pointed out yesterday, our average 1.5% raise each of the last three years has been less than the cost of living increases each year, as calculated by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). This is likely to continue to be the case, therefore we are accepting a de-facto pay cut.
  • Mailbox blockade. “Individuals and organizations other than the Union shall not be permitted to use the school system’s interdepartmental mail and email facilities, or the right of distribution of materials to teachers’ mailboxes.” As worded, this seems to imply that I, as an individual other than the union, cannot send another teacher an email or place something in another teacher’s mailbox. Even though this level of silliness is not likely to be enforced, this does seem chilling to the democratic process. For example, a petition to change union elections to be held electronically or at more sites, that was passed around a few years ago, could be blocked from being distributed to teachers.

Substance: What’s Not in the Contract

My biggest concerns with the old new contract passed in 2010 are actually not with language in the contract itself, but with how it’s been implemented. I find it extremely probable that the new new contract will be implemented in the same way, since it contains no language addressing these concerns.

  • Achievement Units (AUs).
    • Coursework – this seems to have gone well.
    • Contributions to Student Learning – After being promised we would finally get paid for all the extra work we do like running a student club, the details of how this was rolled out were completely counter to what we were sold on. The criteria for this type of AU was not released until two years into the term of our three-year contract. I put in for some of these AUs last school year, and was summarily denied because I had missed a deadline (after BCPSS was two years late on their deadline). I know of one teacher who did succeed in getting this type of AU – he only got 1 AU, after putting in hundreds of hours of work, and said that the amount of time spent on documenting and proving student learning was absurd. Note that 12 AUs are required to before any increase in salary.
    • Contributions to Colleagues, and Contributions to School and District – Three and a half years into a three year contract that promised we would have access to this type of AU, these two types are still “In Development”. See link here and screenshots below. To me, this is ridiculous. The last contract promised things it never delivered on, which is a strong reason not to trust the new contract.
AUs web page

AUs web page

Zoomed in on the lower left of that page - AUs still in development

Zoomed in on the lower left of the page – AUs still in developmen







  • Evaluation Structure. We are being held accountable in our professional evaluations for factors beyond our control. This year 50% of our evaluation is based on whole-school numbers. (More details in my post here.) Next year and going forward, it will be 15% (the School Performance Index). Any amount, to me, is unacceptable, because this creates a disincentive for great teachers to teach at poor-performing schools. This is exactly the opposite of what should be done.
  • Evaluation Implementation. This is not anywhere in writing in the contract, but is clearly a consequence. Since there is not an unlimited amount of money, the fact that some teachers are racking up AUs and seeing large increases in salary, while a few are becoming model or lead teachers with the accompanying huge jump, the school system has to find a way to pay other teachers less. How that has played out, it seems to me in talking with other teachers, is a lowering of evaluation scores. Teachers who for many years had been evaluated as proficient were now being told they were only satisfactory, and thus received fewer AUs, which are tied to pay. This year, with the introduction of a fourth category, “developing”, in between satisfactory (renamed “effective”) and unsatisfactory (“ineffective”), with even fewer AUs, there seems to be pressure from North Ave to rate everyone even lower and thus decrease the number of teachers who advance a step on the pay scale.

Further Information


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[Back today, on a two-hour-delay, after two snow days off, for a start to a new semester and new courses. This semester, by the way, I am teaching Principles of Engineering and AP Calculus.]

Cold classrooms & burst water pipes have been the norm the last few weeks at my school.

I am one of the lucky ones whose classroom heater usually works (noisily, but at least it provides heat). Several colleagues have bought multiple space heaters (paid for out of their own pockets) just to keep their classrooms tolerable. Other teachers have pretty much moved shop for the season into different classrooms, ones that do have heat. I’ve heard of three water pipes freezing & bursting over the past three weeks – one that flooded an entire floor of the building, one that flooded the auditorium, and one today in the aerospace engineering room next to mine (which we’re currently using for equipment storage – I couldn’t imagine teaching in that room with temperatures as low as they’ve been!). While working on the biggest pipe break, water was turned off to 3/4 of the building and restrooms were out of order, for a period of several days.

Students from my school, including several whom I teach, have written letters to the school superintendent (CEO) and local newspaper.

I know we’re not alone. There is a similar situation at other city schools, including Epiphany in Baltimore’s. “This is an education equity issue,” he writes. I wholeheartedly agree.


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Snow Day!

What it’s like on the morning of most snow days:

Check the weather the night before. Think we’ll probably have a snow day since Maryland schools tend to close for anything above a dusting of snow. Check the school closings and see a few counties and/or private schools have called it already.

Have a hard time getting to sleep, as visions of snowstorms dance through my head.

Wake up too early (2am today, sometimes as late as 3 or 4, but invariably before my 4:30-5:30 normal routine). Check for updates on weather and closings, but don’t find any because it is too early for them to make the call.

Find something to do to kill time — watch a TV show, read news, read through my twitter feed for interesting articles. In addition, have three tabs open that I’m refreshing every few minutes: Foot’s Forecast Central Maryland facebook page, my Maryland twitter list, and WBAL’s school closings list.

Slowly see the closings trickle in from the other counties (i.e. school districts). Start to think it’s very likely we’ll be closed since all the other counties are closed, but Baltimore City Public Schools waits until the last possible second to make the call, and has thrown me for a loop before. The tension mounts.

Start to wonder if I should make coffee, shower, & otherwise get ready for work, since Baltimore City still hasn’t called it. Delay past the time I normally would get out of bed since there’s still a chance for them to call it off.

After almost resigning myself to going in, refresh one last time and see BCPSS is closed! Usually called at approximately 5:29am, and the last of all the surrounding counties.

Celebrate that I get a snow day. Hooray!


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New Teacher Evaluation System

I guess this post has been two months in the making. In one of the Professional Development Days this August before school started, our administration described for us how we were to be evaluated this year. As we heard the news, murmurs of disbelief and outrage spread through the teachers in the audience, and I tweeted the following in shock:


What this is about is the new teacher evaluation system that Baltimore City Schools (BCPSS) is implementing this year. It is inspired by the Race To The Top (RTTT) legislation that Maryland signed on to, which requires states receiving RTTT money to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. This is inherently problematic for several reasons that I won’t go into here; however, the specifics of how BCPSS is choosing to apply the RTTT-mandated new teacher evaluations is what makes the process a complete joke.

The new system sets out that a teacher’s evaluation will be calculated as follows:

  • 35% from classroom observations
  • 15% from meeting employee professional expectations
  • 15% from a school performance measure
  • 35% from measuring student growth

Now the first half makes sense. For the eight years I’ve been teaching, we’ve always had two observations by assistant principals and/or department heads which play a major part in our evaluation, and we’ve always had a “Professional Responsibilities” domain that factors into our evaluation as well. But let’s unpack the other two bullet points, which are the newer ones.

The “School Performance Measure“: this is where it starts to get troubling. Why should teachers’ evaluations be based on a factor largely beyond their control? The argument from BCPSS is that a teacher does contribute to the overall school learning environment and that this is an incentive for teachers at a poorly-performing school to work together and turn it around and they will all receive better marks in this category. However, if I am one teacher in a school with more than 100 teachers, realistically this is something I have little control over. And if I am teaching in a poor-performing school, my evaluation grade and thus my pay will be docked due to this fact.

Now, you might say that this is reasonable, since a teacher does have some limited influence on a school, even a large school, and 15% of the overall grade is not that high. But then here comes the worst-thought-out piece of the whole thing: the “Student Growth Measure“. Let’s list a few of the problems with it!

  • The technique of value-added modeling of student growth being used to rate teachers is flawed.
  • There are no details listed on the site about how the student growth measure will actually be calculated (the only examples talk about positive versus negative student growth).
  • Because HSA data does not come out until August, teachers of HSA subjects are actually being graded on last year’s results. Now this could work out in two ways, both of which are problematic:
    • I am graded based on the students I taught last year, and how the prediction of their scores compared to their actual scores. This is the less problematic of the two, but still leaves you wondering why this should affect this year’s evaluation since it has no relevance to the work I did this year.
    • Or, it could mean I am graded based on my current students’ HSA/MSA scores from last year, and how they compared to the value-added prediction. This makes absolutely no sense, since I did not teach those students last year and have no effect on how much they learned then.
  • For teachers of non-HSA subjects (e.g. me and at least 3/4 of the teachers in my high school), we are going to be rated based on what they are calling an “all-student measure”. Which is not related at all to the growth of the students I am teaching, but rather to the average for the entire school. Which brings us back to the issues with the school performance measure above and the fact that this is largely beyond my control.

Which is where that 50% number came from in my tweet up there.

How completely insane is that? Teaching is already odd, in that my success depends so much on other people (my students) rather than primarily on me. But for my success (or at least how it is evaluated) to depend not even on my own students but students from across the school whom I have never even met, much less had the chance to positively influence their growth???

Let’s work this out for a teacher at a typical Baltimore City Public School and how this affects her evaluation:

According to the field test results from last year (when it didn’t count yet), the average school in the district scored a 57.18 (out of 100) on their School Performance Measure. Since they did not do a field test of the value-added scores for the “all-student growth measure” for me to share how my school did or a district average, I shall take the fact that the growth measure is reported on a percentile basis to assume a score at the average school of 50 on that piece. Together, these earn the typical teacher at the typical school 26.077 points.

But what if she were not a typical teacher, even though she is at a typical school? Let’s say she is an amazing teacher who inspires her students to do amazing things in her classroom. Because she is at an average school, she still gets that same 26.077 points for the schoolwide ratings (together 50% of her score). However, even if she were to score a perfect 100 each on her classroom observations and professional responsibilities, that would only get her 50 more points, for a total of 76.077, which is below the cutoff of 80 needed for a “Highly Effective” and a pay raise. It is impossible for this great teacher to get a proficient evaluation merely because of the school she is in and the factors mostly outside her control. This is clearly unfair.

Now what if the school is below average on the all-student growth and school performance measures? I’m going to pull a few numbers out of thin air to make this point, but bear with me. Let’s say the school all-student growth measure is 40 (not too far below the median of 50 percentile), and let’s say the school performance index is 40 too. This is quite a bit below the district average of 57.18, so this is indeed a poorly-performing school (at least as measured by HSA tests). Let’s say a teacher scores an 80 out of 100 on his professional responsibilities (for example, he meets all the professional expectations and scores a solid “effective” on every professional skill listed here). And he scores a solid “effective” (3 out of 4, or 75 out of 100) on the classroom observations. Well, 40*.35 + 40*.15 + 80*.15 + 75*.35 = 58.25. This is below the level needed to qualify as an “effective” teacher (60). This teacher would be labeled “developing”, even though he was rated “effective” on all measures within his control, just because he taught at one of the worst schools in the city.

50% of my evaluation being largely beyond my control is a complete travesty of what it means to be “my” “evaluation”. That should be enough right there to stop this evaluation system in its tracks.

Additionally, as these two examples work out, I think it is clear that BCPSS has set up a perverse incentive for teachers. Ideally, there should be incentives to bring the best teachers to the most under-performing schools, so those teachers can improve the lives and the academic achievement of the students who need the most help. Instead, this new evaluation system does the opposite. It incentivizes good and great teachers, whose evaluations and pay are being held back by an under-performing school, to move away from that school. This is morally wrong.

So, seriously, North Ave, what on earth were you thinking with this? You are setting both your teachers and your students up for failure.


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Ups and Downs

This comes from a conversation I had recently with a college friend. I thought I’d share my personal reflections on teaching in the below message more widely.

I’ve transitioned slowly over the last seven years, from teaching all math, to half math / half engineering, to all engineering this year for the first time. Over the last six years that I’ve been involved on the engineering side of things, I also helped build, grow, and strengthen the engineering program at my high school.

While there have been some issues with students at my urban public high school (few do any homework; it is challenging to motivate all of them to do engineering and math; poor attendance; one kid swung at me last year with scissors), these are minor compared to my frustrations with administration and with the direction teaching is headed in.

To make a long story short, my dissatisfaction comes largely from dealing with a dysfunctional school administration and an outright evil district administration.

But also, more generally than my own local problems, and tying in perhaps with the national mood, I do believe standardized testing, and the more recent trend to hold teachers ‘accountable’ for student gains in standardized testing, is lessening the creativity and fun of teaching that I really enjoyed five years ago.

This is not to say I don’t still find fun in the job. Last week, I really loved teaching a group of three students some programming and number base conversions they need to compete in a virtual robot maze competition coming up soon. And a few days ago I was talking to a student about the types of bridges for more than an hour and that was great. And a month ago I got to really geek out with another math teacher as we worked together to figure out an explicit formula for the number of triangles of all sizes in a triangle subdivided into smaller triangles with n on a side. And yesterday I brought a group of students on an engineering field trip that was awesome! [Another example not in the original message: the pride I feel in what my fall semester manufacturing students accomplished.]

But still, I am feeling more and more frustrated. I’d say I do enjoy teaching still, but not all the b.s. that comes with it.

Anyway, only one more day until spring break! Yay!

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